What Do You Mean “Differentiation Doesn’t Work”?

I was reading this article Differentiation Doesn’t Work – Education Week and found myself thinking that the author had missed the whole point of differentiation. Now, it is true that I don’t yet have a classroom of my own to try to implement this method. It may even be true that as a new teacher, although I am still considered a pre-service teacher, that I am zealous and enthusiastic with the university training fresh in my mind, but I still think differentiation as it is intended works in the classroom. For my Educational Psychology 400 course we are using Nancy Hutchinson’s Inclusion of Exceptional Learners in Canadian Schools (4th Ed.). While the article pushes the idea that differentiation does not and cannot work in the classroom, and gives readers an overwhelming feeling, this book offers a different approach. When I was reading the book I not only learned how to be more efficient at targeting the needs of students but also agreed with the author. Hutchinson promotes teaching with a Universal Design for Learning (UDL) method. This means starting the lesson or unit plan with the aim of including all of your learners. The book also suggests not to take on too much as a new teacher, but gradually integrate Differentiated Instruction into your lessons. The article with the link above points out that classrooms are never homogenous, but always heterogeneous. We have learners with all different abilities, capabilities, ethnic backgrounds and (dis)abilities. The article gives a hopeless sense of “What do we do now?” because we are faced with teaching so many different types of students. One suggestion that Hutchinson’s book uses is for a History class. The more advanced students were to look up essays and formal articles from world leaders at the time of the World Wars regarding conscription, and the differentiated version of this lesson was to have students with lower reading abilities (or otherwise) look up videos and newspaper articles of the same topic. With this lesson, the teacher could group students accordingly and have them present their findings. The presentation could be a oral presentation, perhaps with visual aids. Then the material is taught to students by students in the way that they understand best. In the end everyone will be exposed to both the formal pieces, like speeches, and the informal pieces, like news clips. In addition, students will not necessarily understand or realize that their learning is being differentiated because everyone will be being challenged at a level that best suits them while maintaining the ability to find success with the project.

I will concede that teachers cannot be expected to differentiate their lessons to every single student individually. That is a expectation that cannot be met. However, I do not agree with the author’s mindset that we should not even try it because it cannot benefit everyone. As I mentioned above, teaching with UDL in mind is a form of differentiation, but as a proactive measure. UDL aims to meet the needs of the most students in the classroom. Following this, differentiation to the small number of students that are still struggling with the material is manageable. With a lot of effort and creativity, and used in conjunction with Universal Design for Learning, Differentiated Instruction can work and benefit all students. It will be trial and error, and a long process, but it is one worth pursuing instead of giving up because the battle cannot be won.

Comment below with the ways you have tried UDL or DI in your classroom. What did you do? How did it work? Would you use it again, and if you did, how would you change it?

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